The mere thought of giant flying reptiles terrorizing the skies sounds nightmarish, but some 66 to 225 million years ago, this bad dream would have been a reality. Pterosaurs were the largest known flying creatures of all time, and though not exactly classified as dinosaurs themselves, they would have feasted on dinosaurs as snacks.
Although pterosaur fossils are not especially rare, pterosaur eggs are. As a result, many questions remain about these winged reptilians. How did they develop? Were they capable of flight as soon as they hatched? Did they require parental care? Did they occupy communal or solitary nests?
Now, in what's being heralded as a "world-class find," paleontologists in China have unearthed the largest cache of pterosaur eggs ever found: at least 215 miraculously three-dimensional eggs, 16 of which contain the remains of embryos. Previous to this discovery, only six three-dimensional eggs had ever been found. It's nothing short of a pterosaur egg bonanza, and paleontologists are beside themselves.
"My first thought was extreme jealousy," said David Unwin, a pterosaur expert and paleobiologist at the University of Leicester, to the Washington Post. "Really."
And this might be just the half of it. Researchers suspect there could be as many as 300 more eggs buried within the same sandstone block. The discovery is being described as a "pterosaur Eden."
"This is by far the most exciting discovery that I know of," echoed Alexander Kellner, co-author of the new study and paleontologist at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Perhaps the most arousing aspect of the find are those 16 eggs with embryonic remains. Researchers have enough embryos to observe cross-sections and study growth rates. All of those pterosaur mysteries are on the verge of being solved. The nature of the discovery also seems to indicate that pterosaurs — or, at least, the species of pterosaur represented by these eggs — were communal nesters, kind of like penguins. Either that, or they laid their eggs in huge clutches like sea turtles.
Although research into the embryos is still ongoing, early indications seem to suggest that pterosaur hatchlings had under-developed wings, meaning that they couldn't fly immediately after hatching. If this is true, they may have required parental care until they were ready to fly.
Pterosaurs were also the first vertebrates to take to the air with sustained flight, and they branched into many different species, some aircraftlike in size, some just the size of sparrows. They also varied in appearance. For instance, some had long, pointy snouts, while others boasted wild and crazy crests that may have been used for mating displays. The species represented by this find, Hamipterus tianshanensis, had a wingspan of about 11 feet and likely spent long periods of time flying at sea, feasting on fish.
As of yet, H. tianshanensis shows no evidence of having possessed feathers, so they would have truly looked like winged, scaled reptilians.
The research was published in the journal Science.